Mike T. and Chris W. talk about Magnolia:


Funny you should ask. Andrew and I went to see it yesterday, and (if might take the liberty of speaking for Cha) we were both enthralled. I'd echo your superlatives. Actually, I was in the middle of writing to you guys about this movie when I got Chris's e-mail. I had been formulating some thoughts on parallels between Magnolia and some of the other films that have earned critical acclaim and resonated at the box-office recently. I think there's a trend afoot . . . Let me know what you think. As for New York, I'd like to figure out a plan soon. I'd prefer to go in late February or March. Here's some commentary on Magnolia . . .


Who says Hollywood scorns family values?

This is the year that the film industry mounted its pulpit and praised the sanctity of the child. It seems to me that "Magnolia" was the latest in a recent breed ("Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" are other examples) of movies that idealize childhood. Youth has repeatedly been equated with unspoiled purity -- only to be spoiled by the unclean influences of adulthood. Everywhere you look, movies are inhabited by parents who ignore their children (American Beauty), refuse to listen to them (Sixth Sense), or subject to them reprehensible acts of both physical and psychological torment (American Beauty, Sixth Sense and Magnolia).

Virtually every character in Magnolia was either an abusive parent (Jason Robards, the game show host, the father of the kid-genius) or a child who was traumatized by that mistreatment. The game show prodigy, much like William Macy's character, was a victim of his parent's commercial exploitation. The coke-addict was a victim of her father's sexual depravity. Tom Cruise was a victim of his father's systematic negligence.

This motif reaches its thematic apotheosis in Sixth Sense when a mother literally poisons her daughter to death. Hmmm, a metaphor for parental abuses, perhaps? In American Beauty, childhood is likened to a flower -- something budding and chaste. Mira's Sorvigny's character, a virgin, is literally bathing in rose petals in one scene. And Kevin Spacey lurks on the outskirts, threatening to deflower her in the sexual sense. The imagery recurs in Magnolia, where a film about the degradation of children takes its name from a blossom. (It's also the name of the director's hometown.)

Adults in these movies are often portrayed as emotionally bankrupt, sexually sordid and morally infirm. As the body matures and add physical bulk, its moral fiber decays. In Magnolia, Jason Robards himself personifies this idea as he rots away on his deathbed, seeking atonement for his misdeeds. Just as Robards slowly decomposes -- or as the vainglorious game show host is stricken with a virulent disease -- so too is Bruce Willis' character in Sixth Sense in physical ravages. In fact, he's a corpse. We learn at the end of the movie that he is actually dead, a spiritual castaway, an exiled soul, roaming like a nomad about in search of some kind of reconciliation with his past.

In both films, spiritual redemption is obtained through communication with a child. Indeed, as a nurse in Magnolia, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the role of a healer. To perform this service, he orchestrates a reunion between a remorseful father and his aggrieved son. So too, at the end of Sixth Sense, when a boy channels an expression of love -- and a plea for forgiveness -- from between mother and daughter (his grandmother and his mother).

In a nod to the premise of Magnolia, I doubt this is all one big coincidence.


I think that your analysis is right on target. Indeed, the tendency to blame parents and family upbring for social and personal problems is becoming common not just in popular film but in other arenas as well. Looking at the media, e.g., we see commentators emphasizing the

issue of parental involvement as the mediating factor in so many of the recent school shootings. On television, we see talk show hosts chastising low-income mothers for not spending enough time with their children, even while many of them are single and work in a labor market that increasingly demands their time and energy. On the political front, we see policymakers institutionalizing parental involvement and its connection to child development through laws that punish parents for the misbehavior of

their offspring.

Not surprisingly, then, popular film echoes this tendency. Magnolia, e.g., certainly over-psychologizes the pressures and problems of its

characters, attributing everything to child-parent relations, especially ties between children and fathers. However, the focus on fathers along with the Tom Cruise story also may point to a critique of masculinity, at least that's how I read it. Anyway, nice critical review. I look forward to many more.


I think you're right. Magnolia definitely has a bone to pick with patriarchy. If this movie is to be believed, fatherhood is little more than villainy by a different name. This point of view is not just a bit too simplistic, it's downright atavistic. By portraying nearly every woman in this movie as a helpless casualty of a man's misbehavior, Magnolia espouses an attitude that is positively retrograde in its chauvinism.

Repeatedly throughout the movie men acts as the lords of woman's welfare. When a woman is deserted by her husband -- as in the case of Jason Robard's wife -- she succumbs to sickness and death. She loses her source of strength. When a woman is abused by a man -- as in the case the game show host daughter -- she collapses into the mire of a drug-induced malaise. She is incapacitated. And it takes a police officer -- the modern equivalent of the night in shining armor -- to swoop down and rescue her from this dismal plight. After all, it's not until the cop begins to court the daughter that she begins to exhibit even the slightest flicker of animation.

It seems that the symptoms of a man's moral degeneracy surface in a woman's physical decline. A man's ethical deviations beget a woman's frailty -- as if women were merely barometers -- or appendages -- of a man's character. Hardly a feminist manifesto. Hell, when a man does genuinely profess his love -- see William H. Macy's character -- it is for another man. I guess men are only capable of loving each other in this patriarchal existence of ours.

I suppose I could be overstating the connections between these ideas. Sometimes a story yields meanings that the authors never contemplated, and I suppose this could be one of the instances where a thematic thread wove itself as the narrative unspooled. But, in answering yesterday's question, I somehow doubt these multiple subtexts were merely a coincidence.

I wonder if the groundswell of family-oriented themes in films like Magnolia, Sixth Sense, American Beauty and others represents Hollywood's tacit rebuttal -- or concession -- to the Dan Quayles of the world, as they rail against the film industry's moral apathy of it liscentious appetites. Perhaps these movies constitute some form of political statement -- the aesthetic equivalent of Hollywood saying, hey we're not out to tear the family asunder.

Or, taking the more venal view -- perhaps these movies simply reflect a crass marketing opportunity. After all, no film will survive the scrutiny of the Hollywood bean-counters unless it withstands an analysis that, in America at least, passes for moral judgment: will it make money? To make money, a movie must sell tickets, and to sell tickets, the movie must strike a chord with an audience's sensibilities. It seems that Hollywood has determined that the current cultural climate in America is more than hospitable to stories of fractured families made whole again through sacrifice.

One last observation on the way Magnolia champions the cause of children: Remember the game show? It pits kids against adults in a contest of intellect. And the kids usual win. Much like the kid in Sixth Sense, children often know more than adults. If only we'd heed them when they talk.

Talk to you later.


Um, yeah, patriarical and stuff.




I'm an important man! I have lots of things on my mind!

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